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The Treasure of Ulysses Davis Features 40 Carved Busts of All the U.S. Presidents
Beast with Wings, Ulysses Davis c. 1988; Yellow pine, metal, paint, and plastic beads. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of James E. Allen in memory of Ulysses Davis, 1991.351
NEW YORK, NY.- Though rarely exhibited, the sculptures of Georgia artist Ulysses Davis have been recognized as important examples of African American vernacular art, especially his series of carved busts of forty U.S. presidents. The exhibition The Treasure of Ulysses Davis is on view at the American Folk Art Museum from April 21 through September 6, 2009. Highlighted are one hundred sculptures; seventy-eight of them are from the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation in Savannah, which acquired most of Davis’s work after he died, fulfilling his desire to keep his corpus intact. This is the first time that the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation has lent any of Davis’s artwork to an exhibition.

The exhibition title The Treasure of Ulysses Davis is inspired by Davis’s explanation of why he disliked parting with his work: “These things are very dear to me. They’re a part of me…They’re my treasure. If I sold these, I’d be really poor.”

Ulysses Davis (1914–1990) was a Savannah barber who created a diverse but unified body of highly refined woodcarvings that reflect his deep faith, humor, and dignity. Because he wanted his work to stay together after he died, Davis rarely sold his sculptures. As a result, they have had little exposure beyond Savannah, particularly since his death, and he is little known outside folk art circles.

Davis’s sculptures, which range in height from six to over forty inches, are primarily figures in the round. They can be divided into major categories: portraits of historical and public figures from Martin Luther King to Bill Cosby; religious images, including his largest sculpture, a moving depiction of “Jesus on the Cross;” works influenced by traditional African forms, such as “Strange Fruit” in the American Folk Art Museum’s collection, and a group of regal African rulers; dramatic and demonic fantasy creatures, witty winged beasts and aggressive horned dragons; and decorative furniture and fanciful canes.

Davis’s masterwork is a patriotic group that is on view for the first time outside of Georgia: it consists of a series of forty carved busts of all the U.S. presidents through George H. W. Bush. Davis based the likenesses on a paper schoolbook cover printed with a design of small, stiff presidential portraits. He began with George Washington, in the 1970s, and completed the portraits in order, though interspersed with other works. He carved the busts from mahogany introducing subtle distinctions—Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Regan are probably the most convincing. Viewed as an installation, their impact when seen together further attests to Davis’s ardent patriotism.

Included in the exhibition is the last work that Davis carved, the gold painted “Garden of Eden.” It combines many of the themes that he worked with throughout his life: religious devotion, love, humor, the use of contrasting textures, and the figure of the serpent, reminiscent of the imaginary beasts that are resplendent in his oeuvre.

Ulysses Davis was born in 1914 in Fitzgerald, Georgia. He began carving as a young child. He left school early to help support his family by working for the railroad, where he learned metalworking as a blacksmith’s assistant. After being laid off in the early 1950s, he began barbering in a shop he built behind his home in Savannah. Carving figures from wood in his spare time, he filled his barbershop with his reliefs and freestanding carvings and also decorated and painted the outside.

For the more than three hundred carved figures, furniture pieces, and reliefs he created during his lifetime, Davis used shipyard lumber, wood donated by his friends, or that he bought at lumberyards. He almost never made preliminary drawings or models, but reduced the mass with a hatchet (later, a band saw) before refining the form with a chisel and knives, many of which he fabricated himself. To add textural details he sometimes used tools of his barbering trade, such as the blade of his hair clippers.

Ulysses Davis’s carvings were featured in the seminal exhibition, “Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1982, and were applauded as important examples of African American vernacular art at that time. Examples of Davis’s works have also been included in exhibitions such as “American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum,” at the American Folk Art Museum, 2002; “Rings: Five Passions in World Art,” at the High Museum of Art, 1996; and “Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1776–1976,” at the Library of Congress, 1978. In 1988, Davis received a Georgia Governor’s Award in the Arts.





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April 20, 2009

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